Ada Harris toy fair draws ‘Shark Tank’ comparisons

Ada Harris toy fair draws ‘Shark Tank’ comparisons
Ada Harris Elementary students Vance Bocchini, Benjamin Wieland and Jaime Neeley participate in the school’s annual toy fair on Dec. 21. Photo by Aaron Burgin

ENCINITAS — As Jon Moore surveyed the array of student-designed toys filling the halls of Ada Harris Elementary, he made a statement that resonated with a lot of the adults in attendance.

“It’s kind of like ‘Shark Tank,’” Moore said. 

For a fifth year, the sixth-grade students at Ada Harris held their annual Toy Fair, an exhibition that marks the culmination of a semester-long project in which the students — alone or in a group — must create, build and market a toy prototype. 

Then, on the Thursday afternoon before holiday break, the students line the sixth-grade hallway and sixth-grade classrooms with their toys, presentation boards, homemade commercials on iPads and their sales pitches. 

But for the first time, up and down the halls, parents who attended the event drew the parallel between it and “Shark Tank,” the popular ABC TV show in which entrepreneurs present their ideas to the “sharks” — five industry titan investors — who then choose whether to invest in the concept.

Ada Harris Principal Janelle Scheftner said she can see the parallels, sort of. But the project, she said, is much more than that. 

The project touches on multiple disciplines, including mathematics (the students had to show in graphic form how they arrived at their price point), writing (each student had to write a letter to a CEO of a major toy or department store pitching their product) and, of course, design and engineering. 

But even more importantly, she said, it unlocks creativity and confidence in the students.

“I just think it shows them there is no limit to what they can do,” Scheftner said. “It really grows their imagination and empowers them to believe they can do anything they can set their mind to.”

And, as with each year, the imaginative powers of the Ada Harris sixth-graders was on full display.

Tahli Maughan created a 6-foot-tall pole adorned with guitar strings, a tambourine, a plastic horn and other instruments. She called it the “Music Shtick.”

“As a toy designer, I know what kids want, musical instruments and decorative stuff,” Tahli said, during her minute-long toy pitch. “So I decided to put all of those things together in a fun, crazy, creative toy.”

Tahli’s price point? A cool $160.

“There weren’t a lot of toys to compare it to,” Tahli said. “I think people will buy it at that price.”

Paul Andranian said he learned how to overcome adversity when designing his toy, a portable baseball tee that can fold to fit in small spaces like a sports bag.

Andranian said he couldn’t find the materials to make the folding prototype, so he created two — one that would demonstrate how the tee looked standing erect, and another how it would look folded.  

Gabrielle Fish, Evie Naples, Sienna Manning and Jayden Griswold put their energies into building a four-story doll house (impressively out of wood) with movable walls and floors, which they said would stimulate the interior designer in the kids who purchased it. Jayden said that building the frame was the hardest part. 

“We don’t have skills like professionals,” Jayden said, as her partners nodded their heads in agreement. 

Sienna said that the group took away a lot of technical expertise as part of the project, from the math to the persuasive writing they had to employ in their pitch letter to Lakeshore Learning.

Evie agreed. 

“One of the most important skills we learned was working together as a group,” she said. “As different girls with different personalities, it’s really hard to work together on the same idea, but we learned to compromise on certain things that we had struggles with, so I think that was really important.”

Riley Pullman and Peyton Wallace created a board game that stretched nearly a quarter of the width of the classroom’s floor space, called “Let’s Go,” a “large interactive board game that helps kids get up and moving.” 

They said the toughest part of the project was making the game.

Peyton’s father, Michael, watched as his daughter and her partner made the sales pitch to parents who perused the halls. He said the project was not just “cool.”

“I think it stems them more into skills they will use beyond high school and college, so I think it has more life applicability than a classic textbook project,” Michael Wallace said. “They had to be creative in terms of the project itself, they had to think it through the phases from the prototype, they had to do financial analysis and then they had to sell it, so it’s sort of a turnkey miniature business.”

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